A sense of desperation – or at least frustration – was apparent from those who spoke on Thursday, April 28, in favor of LD 563, a proposed Constitutional amendment that would direct a small percentage of sales tax receipts to Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
State funding for natural resource agencies has gone steadily downhill, comprising 4.3 percent of the state budget in 1981, 3.6 percent in 1990, 2.7 percent in 2000, 2.3 percent in 2006, and 1.8 percent today. This sad trend continues in the governor’s proposed budget.
We know that our environment is our economy, so this steady decline has damaged both our economy and our quality of life.
The Nature Conservancy, Maine Audubon, and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine have worked for two years to create a permanent fix for this long-standing problem. LD 563 is the result, sponsored on behalf of those three organizations by Senator David Trahan.
Senator Trahan is Senate chair of the Taxation Committee that hosted a public hearing on LD 563 on April 28. The proposed Constitutional amendment requires approval by the Taxation Committee, two-thirds of the members of the House and Senate, and the citizens of Maine in a referendum – certainly not an easy path.
The proposal would allocate 1.25 percent of sales tax revenue to IF&W (about $11 million per year).
Trahan pointed out that although IF&W “touches almost all the natural resources that Maine people care about and hold dear to their hearts,” only sportsmen pay the bills. No public support from the state’s General Fund tax money goes to this beleaguered agency.
“To be honest, I am embarrassed that we have to create and rationalize new schemes to generate new money for the IF&W department. Maine’s natural beauty and quality of life is easy to take for granted, but if we want the next generation and our economy to prosper from our natural resources, it is imperative lawmakers stop the destructive budget process that has left this important agency in shambles,” concluded Trahan.
Rep. Bob Duchense, a cosponsor of the bill and author of the Maine Birding Trail, offered a very interesting point. As a member of the legislature’s Natural Resources Committee, Duchense testified that his committee is dealing with many problems caused by IF&W’s lack of funding and staff, including poor and inadequate mapping of critical habitat around the state, and slow response to applications for development.
Nevertheless, said Duchesne, “This is a bill I hate. Six years ago I never would have supported it. I don’t like to tinker with the Constitution. But we’ve got to force ourselves to fund IF&W. It’s so important to our constituents – they want us to fund it – and we don’t!”
Four major organizations offered supporting testimony. No one spoke against the measure.
Tom Abello, whose group the Nature Conservancy has played the lead role in creating and promoting this Constitutional amendment, provided the Taxation Committee with the results of a 2009 public opinion poll. The poll found that 74 percent of Maine people are surprised that IF&W receives little or none of their tax dollars. Respondents said clearly that they want some of the tax money to go to this agency. In fact, 64 percent of Maine citizens who were polled said they would specifically support the Constitutional amendment proposed in LD 563.
“The Department is struggling to meet the expectations of an ever-widening constituent base all of whom expects that the Department will ensure that fish and wildlife resources in Maine will be there for future generations to enjoy,” noted Abello.
Jenn Gray of Maine Audubon testified that her organization was “an active member of the Citizens Advisory Committee to Secure the Future of Maine’s Wildlife and Fish… created by the Legislature in 1999.”
That group found that there is a “pervasive, overarching threat to our fish and wildlife resources. It is one that influences the ability to address all the other threats and also one that is less clearly recognized by the public and policy makers and, therefore, more difficult to address. That threat is the lack of funding to manage fish and wildlife resources adequately, and it puts the continued existence of the State’s outdoor recreation heritage in jeopardy for future generations of Mainers.”
The committee recommended securing a source of significant broad-based funding for IF&W. We’re still waiting, twelve years later. Gray reported on other states that have dedicated a portion of their sales tax to conservation, including Arkansas and Missouri.
Matt Dunlap of SAM, a former legislator, recognized that “the budget-writing process is one of rarified prioritization. While natural resource conservation demonstrates broad public support, the reality is that there are limited funds available for all priorities, and the funding of conservation has continued to be insufficient.”
Dunlap noted that the legislature enacted his bill ten years ago requiring that one-fifth of IF&W’s budget be funded with General Fund tax money, but it’s never been done.
Jeff Romano of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust submitted written testimony in support of LD 563. And I also testified for the bill.
Despite the fact that Governor Paul LePage, on his SAM PAC candidate survey, promised to support this proposal, he directed IF&W’s Commissioner, Chandler Woodcock, to testify “neither for nor against” — a disappointment, to put it mildly.
Woodcock did say, “It seems appropriate to ask the citizens of the State whether they would support a portion of their tax dollars being used to fund the important mission of the Department.”
Seventy five percent of Mainers are benefiting from the work of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife without paying a nickel for that work. That’s a fact.
The Taxation Committee will hold a work session on LD 563 on May 5 at 1 pm. I expect the bill to get a strong boost of support from the committee, perhaps even a unanimous “ought-to-pass” recommendation. Then the real work begins.